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The History of the Bridges on the Menai Straits off the Island of Anglesey
Thomas Telford (1757-1834) began life as a shepherd in his native Scotland, and then took an apprenticeship as a stone mason. Later he moved to London, where he furthered his education. By 1788 he got the job of Surveyor of public works in Shropshire. After returning to his native Scotland for a couple of years, he returned to England to work on the Ellesmere Canal, which included the wonderful Pontcysyllte aqueduct. Over the next ten years he carried on surveying and still continued to work on large building projects like the Caledonian Canal. He started work on the Menai Suspension Bridge in 1819, and it was completed and opened on 30th Jan 1826. He was also responsible for the extensive improvements on the Holyhead to London road, including the erection of the Anglesey Toll Houses. His improvements to the road took 9 hours off the previous journey time.
This was the first iron suspension bridge of its kind in the world, and was probably Telford`s most acclaimed achievement, yet it is only fair to say he would have received a lot of assistance from William Alexander Provis, who was the resident engineer.
This was a massive improvement, not only for the people travelling to Ireland, but also to the locals, who for the first time could cross to and from the mainland without fear of perishing in the dangerous waters of the Menai Straits.
To allow for the height of ships passing under the bridge, the criteria was that the bridge should have at least 100 foot of clearance from the span to the water.
Building began with the stone pillars, the stone for which was quarried from Penmon quarry. Then the enormous task of lifting the 16 chains that would span the bridge started, these would be the main supports. In order to lift the central section of chain – weighing 23 and a half tons – it took 150 men using block and tackle. A large gathered crowd clapped thunderously as the connection was successfully made.
The road surface of the bridge covers a distance of circa 579 foot.
Robert Stephenson’s ‘Britannia’ Tubular Bridge
This bridge was built by Robert Stephenson, the son of George Stephenson, the famous locomotive engineer. The stone for this bridge was, as with Telford`s bridge, quarried at Penmon. The tubes weighing in at an enormous 1500 tons were fabricated beside the Menai Straits. The bridge was officially opened on the 5th March 1850. Anglesey was at last connected to the rest of the country by rail. Four large stone lions were sculpted by John Thomas of Gloucestershire in 1848, and placed two at each entrance to the tubular bridge, making four in total. John Thomas was also the architect who designed the north and south fronts of the House of Commons. The lions are 25 foot long and weigh 80 tons each. The lions are still there, and I have taken some photographs of them – shown below.
After a serious fire caused accidentally by two boys in 1970, the bridge had to be taken out of service. To kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, it was decided that if the damage was to be repaired, then a road bridge would be added above. To account for the additional weight strain that this would impose the engineers added arches to the structure of the bridge, which are now the main support. The road above is now part of the new A55 expressway. Whilst repairs to this vital rail link were carried out, passengers would disembark from the train at Bangor, and be ferried to Llanfair PG by coach, where they then embarked on the remainder of their rail journey. And of course vice versa.